‘God sets on the earth landmarks, and by the stars men guide themselves.’
Chapter One: Persepolis, 1200. (AH 514)
The city sprawled across the valley like an empty throne. Tombs hewn from solid rock pierced the cliffs. Beneath Mount Mercy, terraces sank in steps to golden meadows and meadows stretched towards a range of purple mountains.
Persepolis had lain ruined for a thousand years or more. The great general Iskander burned the palace to the ground, and time had finished what Iskander had started. The terraces were mazes of stones and broken statues, and the paint that clung in places to the buildings reminded wayfarers of the city’s former glory.
Few visitors came. Each year a few men travelled from the nearby city of Estakhr to marvel at the ruins. Shepherds grazed their flocks among the monuments, and moved on with the rains. The city kept its secrets well. Weeks could pass without a single human footstep heard within the empty streets. But there were two living men in Persepolis that day.
The rest were all dead.
Malik al-Sayf ran a fingernail across his knife and frowned. The blade was badly notched from striking bone, and he doubted that the chip would sharpen out. He could do nothing about the damage until they returned to camp, so he tucked the dagger back into his sash and watched the sun set as he waited. Across the meadow, stars were coming out.
“That was too easy,” he said.
Altaïr ibn La-Ahad glanced up from his seat against a toppled stone griffon. The statue’s sculpted eyes were streaked with blood. “Why must you always be so pessimistic? The Templars have never been a match for us.”
Malik, who could think of any number of times when the Templars had nearly beaten the Assassins, shrugged.
“Did it ever occur to you that we are superior?”
“You?” Malik snorted. “No.”
“We have what we came for.” Altaïr reached into a pouch at his belt and held up a grooved golden sphere. ““Do you have a better explanation?”
“Yes,” Malik said. “It’s a trap.”
He expected Altaïr to disagree, but the other Assassin nodded as he replaced the Eden fragment in his pouch. “You’re right,” he said. “This place is too exposed. We should return to Estakhr.”
“Not so fast, Assassins!” called a voice in Farsi.
Malik sighed and drew his knife. “We’re riding back to town,” he called as Altaïr reached for his sword. “If you’re wise, you’ll let us go.”
“Templars,” Altaïr muttered. “Keep them talking while I think of a plan.”
“Nobody can speak that long!” snapped Malik as he scanned the terrace. He saw no movement in the shadows, but heard a creak as someone drew a bow. He pitched his voice to carry and shouted “We’re going to leave one way or another. Let us be, or we’ll thin your ranks further.”
“You are in no position to make threats,” snapped the Templar. “Return the Apple. Then we’ll talk.”
Malik glanced over his shoulder at Altaïr. He wasn’t surprised when Altaïr shook his head. “The Apple’s safer in our hands,” he argued. “We’ll seal it away.”
“It was sealed!” The voice from the shadows held a definite hint of exasperation. “Sealed, and guarded. The guards are dead, and you soon will be. Hand it over.”
Malik shook his head. “Show your face.”
He doubted that the Templars would comply, but to his surprise he heard the scrape of leather on stone as a man stepped from the shadows and made his way towards them in the gathering dusk. He was younger than Malik had expected, with a spade-shaped beard and long oiled hair draping his shoulders. “My name is Arsames,” he said, stopping by a bull-head capital. “My title is no business of yours.”
“My name is Malik al-Sayf,” said Malik, shifting to put the Templar between them and the archer’s most likely location. “This is Altaïr ibn La-Ahad, Grand Master of the Syrian Assassins. You seem like a reasonable man. Perhaps we can talk.”
“Most men are reasonable.” Arsames glanced at the corpses sprawled across the stones and grimaced. “If given the chance.”
“It’s true we stole the Eden fragment,” Malik admitted. “But the Apple twists men’s minds. I’ve seen it do strange things. Believe me when I say you’re better off without it.”
Arsames gave Malik a mirthless smile. “You are Assassin thieves. Don’t dare pretend you’re doing us a favour.”
“We speak the truth,” Malik said.
“You serve the Lie,” Arsames snapped. “This is Persia. We know about Assassins. Your fight against the new world is futile. We’ll kill you both, and take the Apple from your body.”
Malik shook his head, hoping that Altaïr had a plan. “Better men than you have tried,” he said. “Here’s what’s going to happen. Put down your weapons, and let us leave in peace. Or join your friends.” He shrugged. “It is your choice.”
“None in heaven or earth knows the unseen except God,” said Arsames. “But it is possible to guess. You may be skilled, but you’re outnumbered. Some outcomes are predictable.” He raised one hand. “If bloody.”
Malik heard the dry click of a bow. The Assassins were fast, but no man could outrun arrows. He realized that he couldn’t possibly evade the shot in time. He reeled back, blinded by a sudden flash of light. When he opened his eyes, he saw the arrow suspended in mid-air an arm’s length from his face. An unearthly glow illuminated the whole scene.
Malik tried to swallow around a suddenly dry throat. He turned from the Templars, dread twisting his stomach, and saw the Apple glowing like a lamp in Altaïr’s hands. Given the circumstances, he’d rather have been shot.
“What have you done?” hissed Arsames.
Altaïr stared intently at the Apple. The artefact brightened. Its yellow glow paled to incandescent white. The shadows fled across the stones and vanished, bleached into oblivion by brightness. Malik flung up his arm to cover his face. His knife burned in his hand. Far away, he heard somebody scream.